When I walk into the bathroom of The Standard hotel in downtown Los Angeles, a few minutes early for our interview, I find Kristin Welchez applying makeup in the mirror with an open suitcase at her feet. "My room wasn't ready," she explains with a smile.
Aesthetics are important to Welchez. When she first started the beloved fuzz-pop outfit Dum Dum Girls eight years ago in her bedroom, she did it as an experiment born of shyness and a love of 60s pop music. But from the beginning, her aesthetic vision for the project was clear. She wanted to remain anonymous, so she chose the moniker Dee Dee (no last name, though an early NME piece erroneously called her "Dee Dee Penny" and for a long time that stuck). And, because she loved the style of girl groups — though she wrote and recorded the first Dum Dum Girls EP on her own — she positioned the project as a band, enlisting three other women to join her for live performances.
The Dum Dum Girls aesthetic worked. Their look — black leather, red lipstick, sultry cat eyes — became so iconic that for years at music festivals, in my motorcycle jacket with my black hair, I was mistaken for a band member (and I'm sure I'm not the only one). But the aesthetic that served to embolden and enable Welchez eventually came to hold her back.
Sitting outside the hotel — in giant round black-and-white glasses, and yes, a black leather jacket — Welchez tells me about trying to grow as a musician in a world where change is considered betrayal. "I felt like [Dum Dum Girls] had hit a ceiling in terms of trying to evolve, and I was getting some kick back. Even doing different things, it was all still getting filtered back through the context of a garage rock, retro all-girl group. It started to work against me musically. It was limiting."
In early 2015, Welchez started to write what would have been the eighth Dum Dum Girls record, and from the beginning something was different. "I spent longer than I ever had, maybe four to five months, during which time I stopped writing on guitar. I was writing on keyboard, intentionally trying to do something different that I wasn't very good at." Her initial attempts were, as she tells it, "40 of the worst songs I've ever written." She sent several of them to her manager and long-time producer Richard Gottehrer, who agreed. So she took a new approach, treating writing music like a nine-to-five job, and sat every single day at her table working on new material. She also returned to the guitar. "In terms of pop song progressions, that's where I'm familiar and that's a tool that I can use," she says.
Confidence restored, she returned to all the inspirations she was never able to fully explore on prior albums: 90s pop and R&B, Krautrock, early-2000s Kylie Minogue, Ray Of Light-era Madonna, and even UB40. Welchez cites the first two Sinead O'Connor albums as a strong influence "vocal production wise." Vocals were an important unifying aspect of her new solo record, X-Communicate. "I'm a soprano. I sang in choir my whole life. I took voice lessons for ten years. I have that background," she says. "This is the full spectrum of not only what I enjoy listening to but also what I like singing."
Then there were the new producers. All her other albums had been produced by Gottehrer (an iconic songwriter who penned the songs "My Boyfriend's Back" and "I Want Candy") and Sune Rose Wagoner of The Raveonettes, but for this, Welchez brought in Kurt Feldman, with whom she had made a synth-pop Christmas single, and Andrew Miller, an old friend who had played guitar with Dum Dum Girls on their last tour cycle. The result is an album that incorporates synth and electro elements, shedding the haze of past productions for a crisper, more tart poppiness.
Once the record was finished, Welchez knew with certainty that this would not be a Dum Dum Girls album. But it soon became clear that this evolution wasn't going to be accepted easily. Her longtime label, Sub Pop, was hesitant to discard the band name they had spent so many years building. "I thought: the music's really different, the band's going to look really different, all of the things that make Dum Dum Girls really special, the very defined aesthetic in both the music and the visual, all of those things are going to change," Welchez says. "And that to me is almost offensive on a philosophical level, and more importantly, to the fans."
Sub Pop didn't quite see it that way, and Welchez found herself at an impasse. More specifically, she found herself sitting at a bar in her hometown of San Diego, without a name for her new project. She had proposed releasing it under the name Dee Dee, but it didn't quite feel right. Welchez was with an old friend, reminiscing about the past, when she remembered how someone had once insulted her with the nickname Kristin Kontrol. "And then it hit me," she says.
She wrote a quick email to Sub Pop president Jonathan Poneman, a man who she says has long been a "bizarro advocate" of hers: "I said, 'What if we called it Kristin Kontrol, like happy winky face,'" she recalls, laughing. "And he wrote back immediately, like, 'Holy shit, I love that. It makes me think of T. Rex, and Siouxsie Sioux, and David Bowie. It looks cool, it sounds cool, it's YOU.'" And just like that, the name that had once been used to mock her came back to save her.
Though one big problem was solved, other concerns formed in Welchez' mind. "I recognized that it felt right, but also that it was going to be something that I now have to explain." She confided her concerns to Andrew Miller and, within minutes, her old friend put her at ease. "He said, 'YOU'RE the unifying thing. You're using genre, not adhering to it.'" She grins. "And I said, 'I'm straight up going to quote you.' Because that's exactly what I wanted to do. I'm actually just being myself."
"And I'm really excited to not wear black," she adds with a smile.
Text Yasi Salek
Photography Jimmy Fontaine